It was an evening of July 2002. A business analyst and I were structuring and cleaning up a product definition document at our office. We were working after standard office hours on the day. It was past 8pm when my cell phone rang. It was Shallu who called to ask me if I would like to visit Vrindavana. “When do you plan to leave” I asked. She said, “We leave in an hour or so.” By the time I would reach home, it would be 9. I needed time to fresh up. “Why so late?” I asked. “We’ll drive to Vrindavana. We don’t have to travel in public transport.” “We …?” I inquired. “You and I” “I don’t think it’s safe to drive to UP at this hour, or anywhere in India for that matter.” Shallu is an adventuress, and I’m unusually timid about taking plunges. Shallu’s life, so far, has been one adventure after another. For her this was just another drive. One time she drove down to Rishikesh alone. She likes to take risks. She has seen many countries, dealt with a variety of people, managed several businesses. I hope and pray that someday she risks everything for Krishna’s love.
“What would I tell my parents?” I wondered. I told her what I had thought of telling my parents so they would let me go. I went home and announced my sudden trip to Vrindavana with Shallu and her mom. We started our journey on a Haryana Roadways bus. Shallu called for a friend’s Tata Indica. I was still quite apprehensive about what we were doing. She said, “Why would Krishna let anything happen to us when we’re risking our safety to visit his holy land?” It made sense. Her words assured me enough to remain seated in the car–though I was quite stiff and not comfortable at all. We would have covered 1/3rd of the distance when she asked me if I could change a flat tire just in case we ended up driving over nails that are sometimes thrown across the road. Tubeless tires were designed much later as far as I remember. My fear changed gears, and my heart began to sink at the thought of being stranded on the road. Fear has its own odor. Animals have a knack for sensing fear. They attack when they smell that odor. Shallu sensed my fear by my facial expressions. She asked me to play some music and relax and not spoil the joyride. I don’t recall what we played. But we were getting closer to Vrindavana.
We must have driven halfway when Shallu proposed to have a cup of tea at a dhaba on our side of the road. Shallu expertly parked her friend’s Tata Indica and sounded thrilled about adhrak cutting chai. We found a table and waited for two cups of cutting chai. It would have been a few minutes when we saw a gang of men getting out of a car in the dhaba parking. They were 5 or 6 of them. As I dreaded, they grabbed a table pretty close to ours. Their body language was making me uncomfortable. I vaguely remember them laughing loud, wanting attention. Shallu looked relax; not worried at all.
I looked at Shallu, fear oozing out of my facial expression. The lines of worries on my forehead and between eyebrows must have become pronounced. She was still bubbly and bold. We were still talking about the gang of men on the next table and power went off. I freaked out! This was the last thing I expected on a pilgrimage (or joyride?) that we started in a casual spirit. What Shallu said shocked me to my bones “when rape is inevitable then might as well.” A waiter lighted a candle on our table. We sipped our tea, paid for it, and left swiftly toward our car.
We would have driven a couple of kilometers when we saw the gang following us in a Santro. Shallu sped up. The gang sped up. We were being chased. I must have prayed to Krishna. I must have emotionally blackmailed Him, too. How could He let us get into this dangerous situation? After a few kilometers, the gang took a U turn and left us alone. What accompanied us on the Mathura road were trucks, one after another.
We reached Vrindavana around 1am. The Parikrama marg was silent and dark. Roads were muddy. She parked the car outside what looked like a guest house. It was right on the main road. I don’t recall its name. I should ask Shallu if she still remembers it. We went inside to ask for a room to stay over. The guesthouse keeper said all rooms were occupied. Shallu felt thrilled. “We could sleep in the car. It has an AC. What’s the problem?” She chuckled. “I can’t sleep in the car!” I was tensed. It was too much for me. First the lone trip in the middle of the night, then the gang at the dhaba, and now the prospect of sleeping on wheels. The guesthouse keeper said there was a kitchen which no one used. We could use it for the night.
Beggers can’t be choosers! We saw the kitchen and agreed. We slept on the floor or on the slabs, I don’t recall. But the cooler made the atmosphere more humid than it was outside. For someone who had moderate sleeping disorders, sleeping in the kitchen with a water cooler was nothing less of a test. I couldn’t sleep even for a minute. Shallu gave me a heads-up about waking up at 4am to attend the morning aarti in gauron ka mandir (ISKCON). She said the aarti was quite amazing. She had attended it many times before.
We woke up in time and ran to the temple to attend the aarti. I remember walking on the veranda that has checkered floor of white and black marbles. I remember finding a place to sit on steps. A white-bodied priest was reciting Sanskrit verses immaculately and offering aarti to the deities. Thankfully there were not many people, so I could feel the bliss of the place. The entire program took 1.5 hours to complete. I sat on stair steps all along, tears flowing down my eyes. The emotions that had been brewing up rose to my eyes as my heart could no longer hold the grief that I had been carrying for many lives. I cried to my heart’s content. On that morning, during the aarti my connection with Krishna became stronger. I didn’t feel I was visiting the temple for the first time. It felt like home.
We could see the light at 5.30am. I was looking around when my eyes fell upon a wall painting. An aged Indian man was surrounded with firangis (hippies). He must have been their guru, I thought to myself. The more I looked at the painting, the more déjà vu I experienced. I learned that ISKCON had another temple in Kailash Hills, New Delhi. I must go there, I thought to myself. Krishna was gravitating me toward Him. This was not the first time He was doing this to me. This had been going on for lives.